Making sense of the nuclear posture

BASIC will hold the second of its bipartisan “strategic dialogues” on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, this time on “Making sense of the nuclear posture”. This week’s event is timely because President Barack Obama has recently concluded his oversight of the nuclear guidance, two years after his Administration’s formal nuclear posture review. The results of the long-anticipated nuclear guidance are now expected to be released after the elections in November, although most of it will be classified.

Americans will not hear the Presidential candidates debate at length the U.S. nuclear posture, and certainly not more granular details such as what targets to hold at risk with which nuclear weapons. The absence of such a debate is partly due to a perceived and probable lack of interest by the American public, and also partly due to a feeling among high-level officials that such decisions are reserved for an elite. (Last Friday the National Security Archive released President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59 on nuclear targeting; at the time even top-level State Department officials were eventually kept in the dark.)

We do know that President Obama called on his Administration to look for ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policy. The nuclear posture still reflects and dominates the nature of the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, and its features have many enduring legacies from the Cold War. President Obama is more reluctant than his election opponent former Governor Mitt Romney to see Russia in a Cold War light, and criticized Gov. Romney for labeling Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”. Gov. Romney has also gone on record more than once as being highly critical of the New START treaty that caps deployed warhead numbers.

Though the numbers of nuclear warheads in an arsenal are influenced by the plans for their potential use, numbers are not the only measure of an overall nuclear posture, and some argue that the issue of size is overrated. Matters of alert status, negative security assurances, transparency, ambiguity, and plans to advance weapons capabilities through testing or other means, are also important. All of these efforts can be calibrated to make nuclear deterrence more credible or signal a lowering of the intention to use nuclear weapons in certain conflict scenarios.

With all of the risk, planning and investment that goes into the nuclear posture, it is important to question the extent to which the assumed deterrent effect truly exists in relevant scenarios not least because planning for nuclear conflict with inevitable massive civilian casualties sends signals that reinforce enduring tensions, and may also undermine both the chances of overcoming them and efforts by the international community to engage in cooperative activity to tackle other equally important threats that we face.


These are the views of the author.

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